Long ago, there lived three monks: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Tri Quang, and Thich Quang Do. All three were well-versed in the Buddhist Dharma. Nhat Hanh spoke eloquently and wrote well. Tri Quang had talent for leadership and was trusted by the masses. Quang Dao was well-studied and excelled in foreign languages.
Long ago, there lived three monks.
When Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime cracked down on Buddhism, these three combined forces to fight back. Nhat Hanh campaigned overseas, calling for peace and religious freedom in Vietnam. Tri Quang led tens of thousands of monks and Buddhist adherents as they protested in Saigon. And Quang Do, the youngest of the trio, stood side-by-side with these Buddhists as they marched on the streets.
Long ago, there lived three monks.
When the communists arrived, the paths of these three diverged. Nhat Hanh became world-famous with his Plum Village Monastery. Tri Quang was imprisoned and refrained from speaking about politics again. Quang Do continued the struggle for religious freedom and human rights, ultimately serving the longest period of house arrest of any monk in Vietnam.
One day in October of 1997, in a theater in Berkeley, California, approximately 3,500 people, who paid US$20 a ticket to meet their most beloved monk, sat in silence.
A ringing bell echoed across the theater, and a monk’s voice loudly called out: “All rise!”. Zen Master Nhat Hanh, draped in a deep brown robe, lead 35 monks and nuns as they slowly spread out across the stage.
Many in the audience clasped their hands before their chests and directed their eyes towards the stage. Sitting on a high podium next to a large, bronze bell and an arrangement of giant sunflowers, Zen Master Nhat Hanh began expounding on mindfulness. “Learn how to stop running,” he advised his audience. “Many of us have been running all our lives.”
“Society is very individualistic, selfish, with people thinking about himself or herself alone. Each for himself, each for herself alone. But in fact even if you have the desire, the intention, to help others, it would still be difficult for you to do so, because when you are not in peace with yourself, it’s very difficult to relate to people in a peaceful way in order to help them,” he stated to reporter Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle.
By that point, Zen Master Nhat Hanh had become internationally renowned for this talks on mindfulness and world peace. After 1975, he stopped speaking to the international media about human rights in Vietnam, even though Buddhism there was suffering through hardship.
At the same time, in a prison cell thousands of miles away from America, Venerable Quang Do was compiling a Buddhist dictionary. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1995 for helping flood victims in the Mekong Delta. Ten years before that, he witnessed his mother pass away in hunger and poverty after the government exiled both to Thai Binh.
In 1997, Venerable Tri Quang grew accustomed to his comfortable life. He no longer spoke about politics or peaceful resistance.
After 1975, he was confined to a wheelchair to heal his feet, which had atrophied after government torture, according to a monk who was imprisoned with him at the time. From the 1980s onwards, the international media stopped mentioning him and the tragedies of Buddhism in the south.
Childhood in chaos
Born during the tumult of French and Japanese fighting over control of the country, the three monks were all witness to the historical crises of that era.
One day in Diem Dien Village, Quang Binh Province, the mother of Tri Quang met two monks who left a deep impression on her, he relayed in his autobiography. Upon returning home, she told her husband that the family should have someone join the monastery, as the two monks had. Thus, on the eve of the lunar new year in 1938, Tri Quang shaved his head and entered the monastery at Pho Minh Pagoda; he was only 15 years old. The next year, he was transferred to Hue to study for another six years. When he was put in charge of the Quang Binh Province Buddhist Committee for National Salvation (seen as a part of the Viet Minh Front), he saw many of his classmates sacrifice their lives in the resistance war against the French.
In Hue, Nhat Hanh grew up the son of a man who worked for Emperor Bao Dai’s government. Nhat Hanh stated the seed of the Great Buddha blossomed within him from when he was very young. Responding to reporter Don Lattin about his childhood, he stated that while he was studying at the village school, he and his friends would go door-to-door begging for bowls of rice to give to those dying of hunger. He relayed that the kids had to decide early on who would get to eat and who wouldn’t because there simply wasn’t enough rice to go around. In 1942, Zen Master Nhat Hanh left his family and entered the monastery at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue. He was only 16.
In the same year, a 15-year old teenager in Thai Binh traveled to Ha Dong province (today’s Hanoi) to enter the monastery at Thanh Lam Temple. He took on the Buddhist name Quang Do. He recalled, only three years after he left his family, he witnessed his master tied up and brought out to the village courtyard like a criminal, after the Viet Minh suspected him of being a traitor. His master was then denounced and executed by three bullet rounds. It was then the young 18-year old swore to himself that he would use Buddhism’s mercy, forgiveness, and non-violence to fight against fanatics and the unforgiving.
A united sense of purpose
After the tragedy at Thanh Lam Temple, Thich Quang Do went to study in Hanoi. During this time, Tri Quang and Nhat Hanh likely met one another in Hue.
At the time, the Bao Quoc Buddhist Institute had just been established in Hue in 1947. A year later, Tri Quang became a teacher there, and Nhat Hanh a student.
In 1950, Tri Quang went to Saigon for the first time, concurrent with Nhat Hanh. In Saigon, Tri Quang, along with some other monks, unified three Buddhist institutes into one, locating it at An Quang Temple. Nhat Hanh began teaching here.
Both Nhat Hanh and Tri Quang had a common desire to unify Buddhism and develop it into a national religion . Both pursued this desire through journalism.
After the Geneva Accords were signed in 1954 and the country was temporarily divided in two, Tri Quang became the editor-in-chief of the Vien Am paper. A year later, Nhat Hanh was made editor-in-chief of Vietnamese Buddhism, but after two years, he was forced to suspend the paper after pushing for Buddhist unification too vociferously.
During this time period, both individuals suffered enormous mental anguish. Nhat Hanh was completely “defanged” in his struggle and afterward temporarily withdrew from the limelight, retreating to a solitary location with allies in Lam Dong. Tri Quang, haunted by images of his mother being publicly denounced in 1956, wandered to Nha Trang before returning to Hue in 1960. Buddhism’s suppression (by Ngo Dinh Diem’s government) would add an extra layer of pressure on top of his mother’s tragedy.
In 1958, Quang Do returned to Saigon after studying abroad in Sri Lanka and India. Under Ngo Dinh Diem’s religiously discriminatory regime, and the conflict brewing between the Nationalists and the Communists hanging over their heads, young Nhat Hanh and Quang Do were not able to accomplish much in the way of big tasks. But it seems all three were able to sense impending disaster for Buddhism in the south.
In his book Intention’s Road Home, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh explained that in 1961, when he and his friends’ place of residence was raided, he had to retreat to Saigon for safety. During this difficult time period, he traveled to the United States, where he conducted research on Buddhism at Princeton University and then taught at Columbia University.
Days of struggle
On the night of May 8, 1963, as Venerable Tri Quang, head of central Vietnam’s Buddhist Association, stepped into Hue’s radio station together with the provincial leader to resolve ongoing protests as gunfire rang out among the Buddhist crowds surrounding the station. That night, Hue Radio did not broadcast as promised the program celebrating Vesak, recorded earlier that morning. Compounding popular anger was the fact that the government had prevented the flying of Buddhist flags. The crowds did not disperse until two in the morning. That night, many were seriously injured, resulting in eight deaths.
In the gloom of the next morning, as Venerable Tri Quang was resting, roiling crowds of young people began filling the streets, holding Buddhist flags. That same day, Buddhists in Saigon decided to establish the Inter-party Committee to Protest Buddhism (abbreviated as the “Inter-party”), confirming a drawn-out struggle. Venerable Tri Quang sat on the Advisory Board, while Venerable Quang Do worked as assistant to the public relations committee of the Inter-party.
The objective of the Inter-party was to get the government to respond to five demands: withdraw the decree banning the flying of Buddhist flags, put Buddhism on equal footing with Catholicism, end the suppression of Buddhist followers, grant Buddhist monks and nuns the freedom to proselytize, and compensate for the deaths caused (during the crisis) and punish those responsible.
In the two days following the incident at the Hue radio station, Buddhists protested spontaneously, but thereafter, they gained a sense of order and organization with Venerable Tri Quang’s direction, the monk recounted in an autobiographical short story. He also found ways for Buddhists to come to Tu Dam Temple to pray each week for those who had passed away. In Saigon, monks organized spiritual processions from one temple to the next, as well as protests and hunger strikes.
The government only ramped up its repression; many temples in Hue were blockaded, and monks and nuns were publicly attacked. It wasn’t until Venerable Thich Quang Duc, 73, immolated himself on June 11th, 1963 that the situation improved in any meaningful way. Tri Quang traveled from Hue to Saigon to enter into discussions with the government.
In the weeks and months that followed Venerable Quang Duc’s self-immolation, the Inter-party signed a joint communiqué with the government responding to Buddhism’s five demands. However, the government never implemented the communiqué, greatly angering monks, nuns, and the general population.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, at the time he was in America campaigning for religious freedom and a cessation of war in his own homeland. He appeared on television, met journalists, translated materials detailing the human rights violations in Vietnam, and pushed international organizations, including the United Nations, to intervene in the increasingly volatile situation in South Vietnam.
As Thich Tri Quang relayed in his autobiography, on the morning of July 17, 1963, Venerable Quang Do was unable to deliver translated international press updates to Xa Loi Pagoda. That day, countless Buddhists poured into Giac Minh Temple, where the monks were on a hunger strike. These crowds quickly morphed into an enormous protest. As the Buddhist adherents tried to approach Giac Minh Temple, they were blocked by police. Venerable Quang Do was among them, directing the protests to struggle not only against the police barricade but for Buddhism itself. In his book History of the Vietnamese Buddhist Struggle, Monk Tue Giac writes that after 10 am that morning, the protests had devolved into a fighting match with police. Venerable Quang Do suffered a head injury, blood pouring down his face. Any Buddhist who had not been arrested by police returned to Giac Minh Temple, resisting as barbed wire fencing kept more than 600 monks, nuns, and adherents barricaded for 54 hours.
By August 20, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem’s government was determined to restore order. A day after martial law was imposed, monks were arrested and adherents attacked. Venerable Quang Do was apprehended. Venerable Tri Quang went to the American Embassy to apply for amnesty.
From that point until President Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination on November 2, 1963, the struggle raged between Buddhists, the Army, and international pressure.
In December 1963, after the struggle had succeeded, Venerable Tri Quang along with other monks established the Unified Buddhist Church, Venerable Quang Do went overseas for medical treatment, and Venerable Nhat Hanh returned to Saigon.
While Venerable Tri Quang mobilized Buddhist adherents, monks, and nuns to continue the political struggle, Nhat Hanh was able to fulfill his wish of establishing several campuses, including the La Boi Publishing House, Van Hanh University, the Youth School for Social Services, and the Tiep Hien Congregation (a congregation centered on the full integration of Buddhism into daily life).
In May 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh headed to the US to campaign for an end to the war in Vietnam. After three months, the South Vietnamese government refused to let him return home. At the time, Thich Nhat Hanh began becoming world-renowned as the face for peace in Vietnam. The next year, Reverend Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A road diverged three ways
At the beginning of 2005, as the people proudly and warmly greeted his arrival, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was finally able to return home after more than 40 years away, accompanied by a Sangha of approximately 200 adherents. He conducted talks with audiences that included party members in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi.
Meanwhile, Venerable Quang Do lived in solitary confinement, locked in a room at Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City. Across the street were police whose only job was to keep an eye on him day and night.
During his trip, Zen Master Nhat was able to visit Venerable Tri Quang but not Venerable Quang Do.
In the eyes of the Vietnamese media, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was someone to be immensely proud of, he was “flesh and blood” who had returned to his homeland to further contribute to the people’s well being. Venerable Quang Do, on the other hand, was a boil that the government tried every means to remove. But back then, both monks were cut from the same cloth, up until the day Saigon fell.
After 1975, as Zen Master Nhat Hanh set up his Plum Village Monastery in France, Venerable Tri Quang was imprisoned for a year and a half in a hole the size of a coffin, which he was only allowed to leave for 15 minutes each day to wash up. From then on, people no longer saw him calling for protests or making demands for Buddhism; the international media was never able to make direct contact with him again for as long as he lived.
After the war, Venerable Quang Do along with a number of other monks fought for those who had self-immolated in the name of religious freedom and in protest of the new regime’s intention to eliminate the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In a country with no international media, no independent courts, and no freedom of association, these efforts would be in vain, the number of immolated corpses perhaps outnumbering that of the old regime. He was never able to reach a compromise with the government, up until the day he died.
Long ago, there lived three monks: Nhat Hanh, Tri Quang, and Quang Do. When the communists arrived, the lives of these three diverged completely.
Correction (April 12, 2020): in a version of this article, we had written that Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh had entered the monastery at Tu Dam Temple. We wish to correct this to Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue.
 See numbers 2 to 28 in Buddhism Magazine, and Intention’s Road Home (Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh).
- Autobiographical Short Stories (Original: Tiểu truyện tự ghi), Venerable Thich Tri Quang.
- Autobiography of Tri Quang (Original: Trí Quang Tự Truyện), Venerable Thich Tri Quang.
- Intention’s Road Home (Original: Nẻo về của ý), Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, translated by Chan Dat
- Modernity and Re-enchantment Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam, edited by Taylor.
- The Catastrophic Misconceptions of the Vietnamese Communist Party towards the Nation and Buddhism (Original: Những nhận định sai lầm tai hại của Đảng cộng sản Việt Nam đối với Dân tộc và Phật giáo), Thich Quang Do, written in 1992.
- Vietnamese Buddhist History (Original: Việt Nam Phật giáo Sử luận), Nguyen Lang (pen-name of Thich Nhat Hanh)
- The Buddhist Struggle (Original: Phật giáo Tranh đấu), Quoc Oai.
- (Original: Việt Nam Phật giáo Tranh đấu sử), Tue Giac
- “Venerable Thich Quang Do: A Lifetime of Struggle” (Original: “Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Độ: Một đời tranh đấu”), Luat Khoa Magazine.
- Authentic Power (Original: Quyền lực đích thực), Thich Nhat Hanh.
- Stop Running, Start Being, Don Latin, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/10/1997.
- “Pagoda Persecuted, Buddhist Life in Saigon Today”, James P. Sterba, Times News Services, 3/8/1979.
- “White paper regarding the divide between An Quang [Pagoda] and the Vietnamese National Pagoda” (Original: “Bạch thư về vấn đề chia rẽ giữa Ấn Quang và Việt Nam Quốc Tự”), Thich Tam Chau.
- “General History of Buddhist Publications in Vietnam, 1951-1975” (Original: “Lược sử báo chí Phật giáo Việt Nam từ năm 1951 đến năm 1975”), Thich Giac Toan.
This article was written by Tran Phuong and published by Luat Khoat magazine on April 12, 2020. It was translated by Will A. Nguyen.
Legal Briefing On Democracy Activist Pham Thi Doan Trang’s Arrest
Pham Thi Doan Trang, a leading democracy activist and a prominent Vietnamese journalist, was arrested on October 6, 2020 in Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnamese police.
Here is a legal briefing updated on the morning of October 9, Vietnam time.
What allegations has the Vietnamese government made against Pham Thi Doan Trang?
Doan Trang is charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code, and “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code (revised in 2017).
This is a bit complicated. Why are they charging her with two crimes under two separate penal codes? Here is the context:
The 1999 Penal Code (revised in 2009) was replaced by the 2015 Penal Code. The 2015 Penal Code went into effect on January 1, 2018 after being revised in 2017.
The two crimes that Doan Trang is charged with are almost the same. Here is the text:
Article 88. Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
1. Those who commit one of the following acts against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shall be sentenced to between three and 12 years of imprisonment:
a) Propagating against, distorting and/or defaming the people’s administration;
b) Propagating psychological warfare and spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among the people;
c) Making, storing and/or circulating documents and/or cultural products with content against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
2. In the case of committing less serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years of imprisonment.
Article 117. Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
1. Any person who for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam commits any of the following acts shall face a penalty of five to 12 years’ imprisonment:
a) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contains distorted information about the people’s government;
b) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contain fabricated information that causes dismay among the people;
c) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items to cause psychological warfare.
2. An extremely serious case of this offence shall carry a penalty of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment.
3. Any person who makes preparation for the commitment of this criminal offence shall face a penalty of 1 to 5 years’ imprisonment.
What does this mean?
Here is the date you need to remember: January 1, 2018. That’s the day the new and current penal code took effect.
The only reason Doan Trang is charged with the same crime under both the old and current penal codes is that the government has been “investigating” her activities both before and from January 1, 2018.
Some people suspect that Doan Trang is linked to the Dong Tam case as she authored and distributed two Vietnamese-English reports on Dong Tam (in February and September 2020). Some others think her case is mainly about her role at the Liberal Publishing House, a samizdat publisher founded in February 2019. But the two charges suggest that the police take the case further than that.
What did Doan Trang do before 2018?
Her famous book titled “Politics for the Common People” was published in 2017, and there was a report on the environmental disaster in central Vietnam in 2016. She has been involved in international advocacy work since 2013 and she also played a role in the environmental protest movement in Ha Noi in 2015, as well as other activities
Who is in charge of the investigation?
The Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police.
Although the arrest was jointly conducted by Ha Noi Police, the Ho Chi Minh City Police, and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the lead agency is the local government of Ha Noi.
According to the MPS website, the Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police was the organization that opened the case and filed charges against Doan Trang. The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi later approved these motions. It is unclear when the motions were filed and approved.
Where is Doan Trang now?
The latest information from the mainstream media is that Doan Trang has been transferred to Ha Noi. Ha Noi Police confirmed the information with the Tuoi Tre newspaper.
Where exactly is Doan Trang being detained? Her family told us that they were informed by Ha Noi Police in the evening of October 8 that she is being detained at Detention Center No. 1 (also known as the new Hoa Lo Prison) in Tu Liem district of Ha Noi.
How long is the pre-trial detention expected to be?
According to Article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code, as the crime Doan Trang is charged with falls under either the very serious or extremely serious categories of both penal codes, the time limit for detention is four months, and can be extended once for three months.
However, if Doan Trang’s case is categorized as an extremely serious type, the procuracy can extend the detention twice, for four months each time.
The process may be prolonged due to requests for further investigation from the Procuracy or the provincial-level court of Ha Noi. In this case, it could become very complicated as with the case of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, who was detained for 22 months before going to trial.
When will Doan Trang be allowed to meet with attorneys and receive family visits?
It’s unclear whether or not Doan Trang will be allowed access to legal representation and to receive family visitation.
According to Article 74 of the Criminal Procedure Code, “the head of the Procuracy is authorized, when confidentiality of investigations into national security breach is vital, to sanction defense counsels’ engagement in legal proceedings after investigations end.”
Articles 88 and 117 fall under the national security chapter of the Penal Code, and therefore access to lawyers is not guaranteed. Even if a lawyer is granted permission to assist Doan Trang, his or her access to the accused, in practice, is not always guaranteed.
Family visitation, according to Article 22 of the Law on Temporary Detention and Custody, depends on the decision of the head of the detention facility. If the investigative agency requests the detention facility not allow the detainee to meet with relatives, the facility head may accept the request, and Doan Trang will not be able to see her family before trial. It’s highly unlikely the facility head would reject such a request by the police.
Here is what the law says:
Article 22. Meetings with relatives, defense counsels and consular access of persons held in custody or temporary detention
4. The head of a detention facility may not allow a visitor to meet a person held in custody or temporary detention in the following cases, for which he/she shall clearly state the reason:
a. The visitor, who is a relative of the person held in custody or temporary detention, fails to produce his/her personal identity papers or papers proving his/her relationship with such person, or the case-settling agency has requested in writing the detention facility not to let such person meet with his/her relatives for the reason that such a meeting may seriously affect the settlement of the case; the visitor, who is a defense counsel, fails to produce his/her personal identity paper or paper on the defense for the person held in custody or temporary detention;
If visitation is granted, Doan Trang’s family can visit her once a month, with each visit lasting no longer than one hour.
We don’t know when the investigation will be completed or when Doan Trang will be presented before the court. However, here is what we can expect:
- The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi will issue an indictment prosecuting Doan Trang.
- The trial will be conducted by the People’s Court of Ha Noi, a provincial-level court.
- After the trial, if Doan Trang appeals, the case will go up to the People’s High Court in Ha Noi, a tribunal higher than provincial level and lower than the supreme level. Usually, political cases stop after the appellate.
- There is no chance that the case will be brought to the People’s Supreme Court, the highest tribunal of the land, as it requires motions filed by either the prosecutor general or the chief justice, both controlled by the very ruling Communist Party that wants to silence critics to protect their monopoly.
Contact Trinh Huu Long: email@example.com.
Thien An Abbey – 45 Years Under The Government’s Fist
“Thien An” means “heavenly peace”, but the Catholic monks here have never lived in peace.
In the 45 years since Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the monks of Thien An Abbey have only known hard labor and study, and resistance against forces hell-bent on taking their land by any and all means.
Thien An Hill today is no longer covered by sweeping pine forests; under the government’s fist, the trees have all withered away. The authorities have coercively taken the land by using thugs. The monks defend themselves using the only weapon they have: prayer.
Once sacred and picturesque, the area has now become anything but. How did this come to pass?
Thien An Abbey is born on Thien An Hill
1940 – 1943: The abbey comes into existence
In 1940, Father Romain Guilauma, a French missionary, purchased a piece of land on today’s Thien An Hill. The place resembled a miniature Da Lat and was only about 10 km away from the center of Hue. Father Guilauma built a thatched cottage on the land to receive monks from the Order of Saint Benedict. The land is currently situated in Cu Chanh Village, Thua Thien – Hue Province.
Antonin-Fernand Drapier, the French Resident Superior of the Holy See, said a celebratory mass upon the opening of the abbey on June 10, 1940. The abbey was given the name “Thien An”, meaning “heavenly peace”.
1943 – 1965: Digging Lake Thuy Tien, planting pine forests
During this time, monks expanded the abbey’s footprint, building structures, cultivating the land, and raising livestock to achieve self-sufficiency.
The abbey built a chapel and a three-story building with 28 rooms in 1943. In 1956, the abbey began construction on a second three-story building, with 38 rooms on the upper two floors.
The pine forests on Thien An Hill were almost certainly planted by monks during this time period. Furthermore, according to the Hue Festival, monks also dug two large lakes (Upper and Lower Thuy Tien), which provided water for the entire area.
From then on, these lakes and pine forests became one of Hue’s hidden getaways and the area began to be referred to as Thien An – Lake Thuy Tien.
1965 – 1975: Re-issuing a copy of the “parcel map”
In 1969, Abbot Thomas Chau Van Dang asked the Thua Thien provincial Land Office (under the Republic of Vietnam) to reissue “copies of relevant land registers and maps”, lost after the violent Tet Offensive in 1968.
The abbey stated that the Land Office provided it with “a copy of the parcel map”, that showed an area of 107 hectares.
According to the map, abbey land bordered Upper Duong Xuan Village to the north, Bang Lang and Kim Son villages to the south, Minh Manh Road to the east, and Bara Dam and Cu Chanh villages to the west.
Monks have stated that these 107 hectares of land are predominantly pine forests, punctuated by a fish farm, a dam, an elementary school, an orphanage, Duc Me (Mother Mary) Hill, and Thanh Gia (Cross) Hill.
Four decades of unrest
1975 – 2000: Abbey land is turned into an amusement park and private villas are also built on the site
After the Communist victory in 1975, religious establishments no longer had a voice. They had to follow the orders of the revolutionary government, no matter how backwards these orders were.
In January 1976, the head of Hue’s Office of Agriculture and Forestry asked the abbey to “cede” a school it no longer used to house workers. The office began using the school before the abbey had agreed to cede the property.
Afterwards, the abbey said, the government garrisoned troops on abbey land and asked the monks to hand over its dispensary, orphanage, and one hectare of land. The abbey faced with no choice and had to agree. A fish pond was also later requisitioned.
The land dispute over Thien An Hill took on another layer of complexity when the central government became involved.
In November 1999, the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province recommended that the government confiscate Thien An Hill to construct an amusement park. A month after, Vietnam’s prime minister decided to take over more than 49 hectares of the abbey’s land and rent it to the Ancient Capital Hue Travel Company (a state-run business) to build the Thuy Tien Lake and Thien An Hill Amusement Park.
In the process of confiscating the abbey’s land, monks stated, the government wrongly used an order for uncultivated land, which meant the government could confiscate lands without providing the abbey with any compensation or advance notification; as such, the abbey was neither compensated nor notified that the land had been taken.
The abbey petitioned the government regarding the wrongful confiscation of the land, stating that the government lacked jurisdiction according to the Land Law at the time.
Also in 1999, Boi Tran Villa, a restaurant and an exhibition hall for an individual, Ms. Phan Thi Van’s paintings, was constructed. The abbey said that the villa’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove, which the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.
The forestry school later became the Tien Phong Forestry Company, owned by the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province.
2000 – 2010: The state “does not recognize” the 107 hectares of abbey land
Before the abbey’s petition was even addressed, the Thuy Tien Lake amusement park opened in 2001, with more than 70 billion dong (US$3million) in investment.
In 2002, Vietnam’s State Inspector General addressed the abbey’s petition, responding that: “The State does not recognize Thien An Abbey’s land usage rights for the 107 hectares of land and pine forest on Thien An Hill.”
What’s even more strange is that while the State Inspector General pointed out that “the entirety of the land and pine forest on Thien An Hill” had been given to the Tien Phong Forestry School in 1976, the abbey was completely unaware of this.
The abbey continued to oppose the Inspector General’s conclusion through more of its petitions to the government, stating that such conclusion did not focus on resolving the abbey’s disagreement according to the prime minister’s decision.
The Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park had begun admitting people from the public in the middle of 2004. However, by 2008, it was suffering heavy losses. The provincial People’s Committee later allowed another company to lease the amusement park.
In December 2008, the government issued a directive for provinces and cities to review and return to religious organizations all properties that were not being used effectively; however, none of Thien An Abbey’s properties were returned.
2010 – 2015: Another villa in the “special-use forest”
The government designated Thien An Hill a “special-use forest” but continued to build villas within it.
In 2010, the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat was constructed. The business venture was pursued by another individual, Ms. Ta Thi Ngoc Thao, aiming to provide a space for rest, meditation, and Zen study. The abbey stated that the retreat’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove that the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.
In 2011, the Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park was closed down due to unprofitability.
Thien An Abbey reported that in 2013, the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee issued papers certifying Tien Phong Forestry Company’s land usage rights, which included a number of the abbey’s structures, including an internal road, a chapel, a dormitory, and a building that the Hue Office of Agriculture and Forestry had borrowed since 1976.
2015 – 2017: Conflict escalates, a statue of Jesus smashed
From the beginning of 2015, peace was shattered on Thien An Hill as the gentle lands became anything but.
The abbey said that beginning in January 2015, the government proposed multiple times that the abbey accept a measly 18 hectares of land so that their claims would be entered into the official registry. The abbey refused.
In May 2015, monks discovered that a statue of Jesus belonging to the abbey had been smashed and scattered in the wilderness.
At the beginning of 2016, a group that included police, cadres, employees of the Tien Phong Forestry Company, and reporters entered the abbey to investigate the chopping down of numerous pine trees. Afterwards, the monks were rounded up by investigators allegedly for the crime of deforestation. The monks stated that an article in the Vietnam Law Newspaper slandered the abbey, falsely accusing it of deforestation and obstructing officials.
In March 2016, a statue of Jesus that had just been put up was pulled down by a group of women, civil defense officers, and cadres mobilized by the government.
In the middle of 2016, the abbey reported that the Thuy Bang commune authorities led about 200 individuals accompanied by a large excavator to halt road construction linking the abbey to a partially-completed garden. The Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee afterwards issued the abbey a form stating that it had trespassed on special-use forest land by constructing this road.
In March 2017, authorities continued to mobilize people to prevent the abbey from leveling land in areas the abbey claimed.
That same month, unknown persons carved large V’s into numerous pine trees near the abbey’s dam, causing them to slowly wither and die.
In May 2017, the government continued to allow numerous individuals to arrive at the abbey and disrupt renovation work on the abbey’s claimed land.
At the end of June 2017, a statue of Jesus and the Holy Cross was resurrected only for the government to pull it down again. A number of monks were injured in the incident, but were unable to get to the hospital for treatment because police had set up traffic barriers blocking exit from the abbey.
After that scuffle, the provincial People’s Committee met with abbey representatives, but the conflict remained unresolved. The committee stated that the prime minister’s statement in 1999 and the State Inspector General’s decision in 2002 were “faultless and should remain as is”.
On July 25, 2017, the abbey reported that the provincial People’s Committee had responded to a number of the abbey’s grievances regarding the piney hill:
First, the abbey’s school building was demolished according to the government’s 1976 Decision 188/CP because the school was a “remnant of land possession and colonial exploitation…”
Second, the land which the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat sat on originally belonged to the Tien Phong Forestry School, which transferred it to a residential household in 1984; this entity then passed it onto another household, which then passed it onto the retreat.
Third, the owner of the Boi Tran Villa purchased land for his/her villa by combining purchases from two different households: one from the household that passed the land to the Cat Tuong Quan retreat and the rest from another household.
Fourth, regarding another household that was supposedly using abbey land, the committee stated that this household was sitting on land that the forestry school had granted to the family in 1984 to start a garden and build a house.
The abbey argued that the committee’s explanations were not convincing, especially since land survey records remain conspicuously missing.
On December 18, 2017, commune authorities blocked monks from setting up a Christmas welcome gate on an internal road leading into the abbey.
Approximately one week later, the abbey reported that Phan Ngoc Tho, the vice-chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee, proposed that the Order of Saint Benedict and the Provincial Vietnamese Order of Saint Benedict no longer designate Father Nguyen Huyen Duc as the abbey superior and that he should be transferred out of the province.
2018: Year of repeated forest fires
In January 2018, Thuy Bang commune police asked the abbey to provide a list of individuals who resided at the abbey in any form to help with on-site corroboration.
At the beginning of March 2018, after monks felled a tree to prevent a fire, police and traffic officers, forest management, and government cadres all joined forces to obstruct the felling, ultimately confiscating the pine tree. After this event, five incidences of forest fire occurred one after the other.
On March 4, 2018, a portion of the abbey’s claimed pine forest caught fire. After the fire, four other forest fires occurred on May 10, May 22, May 23, and July 4, 2018. The abbey claimed that the fires destroyed about 8 hectares of pine trees that were about 60 years old.
In June 2018, Phan Ngoc Tho became the chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee after his predecessor retired early.
On July 18, 2018, the abbey reported that a group of employees from the Tien Phong Forestry Company had entered the burned land on July 4 to plant pine trees but were stopped by the abbey.
In December 2018, the abbey continued to demand the Tien Phong Forestry Company return the school it had borrowed from the abbey.
2019 – 2020: Strains continue to worsen
On the night of April 19, 2019, about three hectares of old pine trees that had grown for more than 60 years burned completely. According to the abbey, Tien Phong Forestry Company regularly claims that it manages the land but it did nothing to stop the burning.
The abbey reported that this fire and the previous five fires were ignored by firefighters and that the government, which has released no public information about the events, failed to carry out an investigation into the damage.
In May 2020, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities announced that they would transform the dilapidated Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park into a “cultural park to serve the community, a state-of-the-art creative space, a sculpture garden.”
About a month afterwards, approximately one hectare of the abbey’s pine forest was hacked to pieces. Many large pine trees were sawed into, leaving deep scars that would kill the trees slowly without felling them.
In July 2020, the abbey continued to send official documents asking for the return of the elementary school that the Tien Phong Forestry School borrowed from the abbey.
Over three consecutive days, from August 10-12, 2020, when the entirety of Thua Thien – Hue Province was on-guard against COVID-19, a crowd of approximately 40 people held up signs and shouted over loudspeakers at the site of a toppled statue of Jesus, demanding the abbots halt their work and return the land to them.
Abbots recognized these individuals as committee cadres, members of the Thuy Bang commune women’s association, and familiar security and surveillance officers.
Protests of this nature cannot be organized without the backing of local authorities. The ongoing dispute between the abbey and the government continues to escalate with no prospects of good results. We will continue to update the latest developments of this dispute in the coming months.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.
Religion Bulletin – August 2020
Discover the four common tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach]. In [Religion 360°], we continue coverage of the parishes resisting the government acquisition of schools borrowed after 1975, along with other news. Learn a bit about the Khmer Krom movement in [On This Day], where we discuss the arrest of a former Khmer temple head in Tra Vinh.
If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
[The Government’s Reach]
Four tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations
For years, the government has used multiple tactics to suppress religious organizations it does not agree with. The authorities refer to their actions as “professional”, but in common parlance, these actions are more “cloak and dagger”. The following are the four most common tactics used by the government to suppress religious organizations.
- Organizing crowds to protest
The land dispute at Thien An Abbey continued to escalate in August 2020. On August 10 and 11, a group of about 40 individuals organized a protest to speak out against Thien An Abbey for sitting on their and the government’s land. Protestors used large signs and loudspeakers to threaten and insult monks while standing on the disputed land. According to the abbey, the crowd’s organizers were cadres of the Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee, along with a number of police, as well as cadres from social organizations such as the Women’s Association.
In May 2017, an enormous mobilized force of between 1,000 to 3,000 people organized a week-long protest to speak out against Father Dang Huu Nam, the head of Phu Yen Parish in Vinh Diocese. This force criticized the clergyman’s words against the government and his actions when he assisted parishioners in suing the Ha Tinh Formosa Co. a year after the company caused a marine environmental disaster in 2016.
In Vietnam, protests like these cannot be organized without the backing of the government. They’re put together to smear and lower the prestige of religious organizations that the government does not approve of.
- Using state media
The protests against the monks of Thien An Abbey were reported in detail by the Thua Thien – Hue Province state media. After the protests, Thua Thien – Hue newspapers published two articles on August 18, 2020 and August 26, 2020 accusing the monks of surreptitiously taking land and falsely slandering the authorities with accusations of oppression. Hue Radio-Television broadcast a report on the protests as well. State journalists have previously blamed the monks of Thien An Abbey for being “aggressive and uncooperative with the authorities”.
The protests opposing Father Dang Huu Nam were also reported in-depth by scores of other state journalists. More significantly, Vietnam Television (VTV) conducted a live national broadcast on the evening of March 24, 2017, regarding priests in Phu Yen Parish. The VTV report accused the Phu Yen priests of disrupting order and security by inciting parishioners to submit litigation against the Ha Tinh Formosa Co..
The Vietnamese state closely monitors media organizations, and journalists are not allowed to report on news that could adversely affect government interests. No independent television and radio stations are permitted to operate.
Religious organizations today normally have to establish their own media channels or use social media to speak up for themselves. There are currently two Catholic websites actively operating: “Good News to the Poor” and “VietCatholic,” but both are blocked in Vietnam. Independent media, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, and RFI, are also blocked in Vietnam.
- Using hired thugs
According to the monks of Thien An Abbey, this land dispute has lasted more than 20 years and has always involved unidentified, aggressive individuals who assault the monks. Over many years, Thien An Abbey has faced numerous aggressive acts, including glass shards strewn across the football field, pine trees being cut down, statues of Christ being stolen and smashed, stalking, and threats—none of which are investigated by local authorities.
The Vietnamese authorities are well-versed in using hired agents to create physical scuffles in order for police to then respond with violence.
On February 14, 2017, according to VOA, police infiltrated a group of people who were mobilizing to sue the Formosa Co. These infiltrators threw rocks in the direction of riot police and instigated violence, giving police a pretext to suppress the movement, injuring about 50 parishioners. Police also instigate and/or stage scenes of violence in order for state media to record negative images.
Hired agents who were not part of the contingent hurled rocks in the direction of riot police in order to instigate violence. Source: VTV.
In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were stopped by a mob blocking the road and were severely beaten as they were on their way to An Hoa Temple to stop the re-tiling of that temple’s original roof. The matter was not investigated by the police.
The government use of hired thugs to instigate violence and threaten activists and religious groups is commonplace in Vietnam—and a serious problem.
- Harassment using administrative regulations unrelated to religion
In 2018, Thuy Bang Commune police asked Thien An Abbey to provide a list of individuals who lived at the abbey in order for police to carry out direct inspections and corroborations.
In June 2017, Thua Thien – Hue provincial police set up a traffic blockade to prevent parishioners and monks from entering Thien An Abbey. Simultaneously, a large scuffle broke out at the abbey itself, injuring many monks who were unable to get to a hospital because of the traffic blockade.
This administrative harassment may seem insignificant but sometimes it is part of a larger trap to ensnare religious organizations and activists.
In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two years of probation and six years in prison for interfering with traffic police who had prevented residents from attending the death anniversary of a fellow follower. The six were convicted of obstructing officials and disturbing public order when they protested and argued with traffic police who were purposefully checking the papers and confiscating the vehicles of those attending the anniversary.
Local authorities regularly misuse administrative regulations as tools to punish and entrap religious organizations and to hinder activities. Authorities in a number of locations in the Central Highlands refuse to issue paperwork to independent worshippers, such as identity cards, passports, marriage licenses, and land use deeds, as punishment.
Thi Nghe Parish asks for help as the authorities unilaterally change the usage rights of a parish school
In August 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City asked citizens for support in demanding the return of their school, which the authorities had initially borrowed and later permanently altered the usage rights to.
Vietnam does not recognize the right to land ownership. Land belongs to the state and citizens are granted usage rights.
Before 1975, Thi Nghe Parish contributed money to build Phuoc An Private School for approximately 4,000 students. After 1975, when private schools were abolished, the parish lent the state two three-story structures and another single-story building to function as a school (named Phu Dong Elementary School).
In 2019, when the parish was conducting a survey to build an underground parking structure for parishioners, it discovered that the authorities had granted usage rights to Phu Dong Elementary School in 2013; for six years, the parish was unaware that the school structures no longer belonged to them.
After more than a year of petitioning, in July 2020, Binh Thanh District authorities responded, stating: “Phu Dong Elementary School, including border walls, are state property to be managed by Phu Dong School.”
Land policy from the 2000s granted local authorities the ability to delineate to themselves the (continued) usage of religious grounds already being used by the state. If the state continues to use these religious grounds for public purposes, then religious organizations cannot ask for the return of their properties.
Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation demands the return of a school building it lent to the authorities
At some point in the last 44 years, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation’s Giuse School became a Dong Nai Province medical center.
Nuns in the congregation stated that before 1975, 1,000 students came to study at the school every year, at both the elementary and middle school levels. In 1976, the congregation lent the school to the authorities for five years to train cadres.
After five years, not only did the authorities refuse to return the school to the congregation, they further borrowed two rowed structures and a 6.482 square meter plot of land. These grounds were handed over to Bien Hoa General Hospital, which was then granted usage rights in 2004.
Recently, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation is in need of activity grounds for newly-joined nuns and as senior facilities for older nuns, hence it has asked for the return of the school building it lent to the government. But similar to the situation in Thi Nghe Parish, such returns are difficult to achieve if the authorities do not voluntarily choose to do so.
Dak Nong Province announces that it must “deal with” many new religions in the region
In August 2020, the Dak Nong Newspaper, belonging to the Dak Nong Province Communist Party, reported that many new religions were operating illegally in the region.
These new religions are referred to as “strange” or “heretical” religions. According to the Dak Nong Newspaper, approximately 10 of these “strange, heretical religions” have penetrated the province. Among them, the Gie Sua religion has the most followers, with 232; Falun Gong has 96; Hoang Thien Long 71; the World Mission Society Church of God 53; and the Tien Thien religion 24.
The Dak Nong Newspaper reported that the government will resolutely eliminate these “strange, heretical religions” from the province, and will ask residents to denounce anyone following or spreading these unsanctioned religions.
State journalists report that the Gie Sua religion was founded by an ethnic Hmong in the United States, who changed Protestant rites, such as worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday, not recognizing the lord Jesus’ name, and not celebrating Christmas or Easter.
According to Nghe An Newspaper, the Hoang Thien Long religion involves the spiritual worship of martyrs and “Uncle Ho” to treat diseases.
The Khanh Hoa Newspaper states that the World Mission Society Church of God was a religion based on the tenets of Protestantism and was introduced from South Korea into Vietnam in the 2000s.
The Tien Thien religion has yet to be reported on by state media. Information available online indicates that this religion is based on the teachings of Daoism.
Individual punished for spreading Falun Gong beliefs
State media reported that at least one person has been punished for spreading Falun Gong practices in August 2020.
According to the People’s Police Newspaper, Hai Duong provincial police arrested Ms. Le Thi Thoa, 61, as she was “illicitly spreading Falun Gong” in an alleyway in the city of Hai Duong. She was fined 300,000 dong (US$13).
Though the government has not made any formal pronouncements about Falun Gong, local authorities uniformly see it as heretical and forbid people from promoting the movement.
A number of religious prisoners unable to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19
Hua Phi, Cao Dai leader and member of the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam, told RFA that the authorities were not allowing religious prisoners to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19.
Near the end of July 2020, COVID-19 resurged in a number of cities in Vietnam, and detention centers and prisons temporarily discontinued outside visits. These detention centers became disease hotspots, such as in Da Nang, where outside visits and deliveries for prisoners were temporarily halted.
However, in other cities and provinces, a number of families of non-political and non-religious prisoners were still able to send in medicine and supplies.
Current regulations allow these detention centers autonomy in determining visitation and outside delivery policies. There’s a high possibility that these centers are using COVID-19 as a pretense to punish religious prisoners.
Authorities finally recognize Lai Chau Parish as a religious organization after more than 13 years of applying
On August 21, 2020, the Lai Chau Province People’s Committee permitted the Hung Hoa Diocese to establish the Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious organization.
According to Father Phero Pham Thanh Binh the Epsicopal See of Hung Hoa Diocese had been requesting that the authorities recognize Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious entity since 2007, a request that has only just now been accepted.
The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that an organization granted a certificate of registration must operate for at least five years and meet a number of other requirements before it is officially recognized as a religious organization. In actuality, however, the authorities often drag their feet in granting legal status to any religious organization.
Hung Hoa Diocese manages parts of the north of Vietnam, including the entirety of Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, and Son La provinces, a portion of Hoa Hinh, Ha Giang, and Tuyen Quang provinces, as well as the city of Hanoi.
According to the head of the Hanoi Episcopal See, Giuse Vu Van Thien, Hung Hoa Diocese has faced many difficulties, because the religious policies are different from province to province: “Some policies are relaxed, but some others are difficult. Some of the policies have limited government interference, but some are overbearing. And there are others that even have cadres announcing white zones which means there are no religions in that locality at all”.
[On This Day]
The imprisonment of a Khmer temple’s former head and the Khmer Krom Movement
At the end of July 2010, Tra Vinh provincial police imprisoned Thach Sophon, the former head of a Khmer temple, after investigating him for a case that occurred in April 2010.
Thach Sophon was arrested July 29, 2010, two days after he left the priesthood. The government stated that his arrest stemmed from an incident in April of that same year, in which the temple he headed held a suspected burglar in captivity for a night before bringing him to police. More than a month after his arrest, he was still not allowed to see his family or any lawyers.
According to RFA, the human rights group Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), which advocates for the rights of Khmer living in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, raised objections to Thach Sophon’s detention. The federation stated that he was arrested because the government suspected he was linked to the Khmer Krom movement. In 2006, the federation said, a disciple of his was accused of anti-state propaganda but was able to escape to Thailand before being detained. Another disciple confirmed that Thach Sophon had been monitored by the authorities since 2005.
In September 2010, Thach Sophon was sentenced to nine months of probation for illegally detaining another person.
These events pushed many human rights groups to suspect that the authorities intentionally arrested Thach Sophon to interrogate him about the Khmer Krom movement. When this proved unsuccessful, they framed him with a case that occurred three months earlier.
The Khmer Krom Movement
The Khmer Krom movement picked up strength during the 2000s and still operates, though it no longer draws as much attention. It is a movement that peacefully advocates for the rights of local Khmer living in Vietnam, including Khmer monks. Many Khmer Krom organizations participate in the movement, but the predominant one is the The Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), whose website is currently blocked in Vietnam.
The Khmer Krom movement advocates for human rights in Vietnam for the Khmer ethnicity, including their freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the press, land rights. It also includes medical right, the environment, and local culture.
However, the Vietnamese authorities still see the movement as a seditious one that unites Cambodian citizens and Khmer living in the Mekong Delta against the government. In August 2010, Vietnam requested that Cambodia resolutely shut down this movement. In 2014, many large protests broke out demanding human rights for Khmer living in Vietnam.
The temporary confiscation of a Khmer monk’s passport after an alleged violation of the Cybersecurity Law in February 2020
In February 2020, Long Phu district police in the province of Soc Trang interrogated a 36-year-old Khmer monk of Cambodian citizenship named Seun Ty, confiscating his passport for two weeks.
“They interrogated me and pressured me to confess to violating Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law after I shared a Radio Free Asia (RFA) interview with Mr. Tran Manrinh, a representative of KKF,” Seun Ty told Voice of America. ‘They used this action to accuse me of violating the Cybersecurity Law.”
Long Phu district police had threatened to bar him from entering Vietnam or fine him 30 million dong (US$1,298). After human rights organizations forcefully spoke up, his passport was returned after two weeks.
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